I’ve been thinking from time to time about the genre of deliberative inquiry. When one thinks of the genre of deliberation, one is inclined to take the first question to be: ‘Well, what is to be done?’ Or: ‘What shall we do?’ Over the years, I’ve become disenchanted with this question; it is rarely the right one.
For starters, I’ve learned that so-called volitional questions having to do with the will (willing, deciding, choosing, abstaining, restraining, and so on) are, in most cases, ways of avoiding the more fundamental cognitive-metaphysical-epistemic questions concerning knowing oneself and the world. On this score, my reasoning tends to run:
If I can come to know myself more generally and understand the world from the right point of view, then it would likely follow, first, that ‘What is to be done?’ would not show up for me and, second, that right action would come easily and spontaneously.
What my philosophical friend and I found today, then, was just this: we wanted to know not whether he should do X or Y but rather:
- What would it mean for him to be closer to what is higher?
In this connection, I am reminded of the arguments of the philosopher Charles Taylor. In A Secular Age, he wants to ask about the ‘place of fullness’ in an excellent life. This ‘place of fullness,’ he writes, is one to which we ‘orient ourselves morally or spiritually,’ seeking to come into contact with it. And yet, there is also the experience of exile or severance when we cannot make out from whence this fullness arises, what this fullness is (or whether it is), or whether we are in touch with it. Beyond this experience of exile lies a ‘middle condition,’ which places us in closer proximity to this source.
The question would then turn on (i) specifying what is higher, (ii) determining what the constituents of this higher (or fuller) are, and (iii) letting come into view what sort of activity or activities would bring one into closer proximity to this sense of the higher.
And this is precisely what my philosophical friend and I did today with the result that he felt a profound sense of calmness by the end. This kind of calmness, which is achieved by good philosophical reasoning, is rather like coming to mathematical certainty.